Family member in serious legal trouble. Should I lawyer up?
April 13, 2016 1:52 PM   Subscribe

An immediate family member has been arrested and charged with a felony. I want to protect myself and my spouse and avoid involving ourselves in the situation to the greatest extent possible. Unfortunately, there is a complicating factor.

For all intents and purposes, I'm estranged from said family member. I have no knowledge of facts relative to the offense, nor am I a witness to any events relative to the offense. Frankly, the whole situation has caught me by surprise. Other than providing emotional support to other family members who have been impacted by the situation, my intent is to stay out of it as much as possible and protect myself and my spouse from any potential liability.

However, there is a complicating factor. Several months prior to being charged, said family member needed to relocate from the state in which I reside to another state on a moment's notice. As a result, he was unable to take many of his belongings that were stored in a local storage unit. At my family's request, I reluctantly agreed to recover those belongings and temporarily store them at my residence. Currently, I still have possession of those belongings. The alleged victim of the crime knows that I have these belongings in my possession; in fact, the alleged victim assisted me in packing them for the move.

I have no reason to believe there is anything of interest in these belongings, but will admit that I haven't done a full inventory of the contents. However, given the nature of the offense, it's entirely possible the police may take an interest in these belongings as part of their investigation. As of now, I haven't been contacted by the police, but I want to be prepared.

Obviously, YANAL/YANML, but given the circumstances, would it be an overreaction to speak to an attorney? And if I do, what kind of attorney should I be looking for?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (23 answers total)
IAAL, IANYL, TINLA. If you want to talk to a lawyer, talk to a criminal defense attorney. Without knowing what the crime was, it's hard to say what if anything you could be culpable for.
posted by notjustthefish at 1:58 PM on April 13, 2016 [12 favorites]

It really depends on what type of crime this was. I think without knowing this it is pretty difficult to say.
posted by ReluctantViking at 1:59 PM on April 13, 2016

No, it would not be an overreaction to ask a lawyer. All you really need at this point is instructions on how to properly respond to a warrant (or lack of same), which is at best a 30-minute conversation and worth the money. It may be worth paying for a couple of hours just so you can say "here's my lawyer's number" if anything comes up.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:07 PM on April 13, 2016 [11 favorites]

In your shoes, I would retain a criminal defense attorney and, together with your attorney, I would contact the law enforcement agency and offer to surrender the items to them. I wouldn't do it alone because sorry I don't trust law enforcement as I think they're inclined to use their power as a blunt instrument. Accordingly, I would tell your attorney everything and let him/her lead the way.
posted by janey47 at 2:07 PM on April 13, 2016 [8 favorites]

i wouldn't even take inventory of the stuff or move it in any way before talking to a lawyer, especially if the offense involves drugs, weapons, or child porn.
posted by nadawi at 2:18 PM on April 13, 2016 [53 favorites]

Touch nothing, and call a lawyer immediately. Your biggest risk at this moment is getting charged with hindering the prosecution.
posted by SMPA at 2:23 PM on April 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Yep, criminal defense attorney. Talk to them before even taking a peek at what you've got.

I'm sorry your good deed is leading you to get punished,* Anon.

*in the sense of having to deal with this, and pay for the lawyer... not in the sense of you being likely to suffer any penalties, especially if you follow your lawyer's advice
posted by sparklemotion at 2:26 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't bother seeking legal advice unless:
  • There's some indication you, or the materials you're storing, have actually been implicated in the case somehow
  • You are planning on doing something that could impact the stored materials (moving them, disposing of them, or pretty much handling them in any way)
  • Or if you're considering actively contacting the police / prosecution and notifying them about these materials.

posted by kickingtheground at 2:28 PM on April 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Agree that you should call a criminal defense lawyer and not touch anything.

(Will just give my standard spiel here about please not using the phrase "lawyer up." I do understand most people use it tongue in cheek, but even used that way it normalizes the idea that there's something suspicious about retaining a lawyer and that it should be avoided because it's something only guilty people do. "Call a lawyer" or "retain a lawyer" are both perfectly lovely substitutes.)
posted by holborne at 2:28 PM on April 13, 2016 [8 favorites]

If it were me I'd wait to see/hear if I was being contacted re:this case (i.e. contact a criminal defense lawyer at the point at which you are involved in a legal situation) and otherwise just ignore your role in it entirely. Don't touch the stuff. Don't lie about the stuff. Don't let anyone else touch the stuff. If someone tries to touch the stuff I would probably talk to a lawyer at that point.
posted by jessamyn at 2:30 PM on April 13, 2016 [12 favorites]

If the charge is serious I'd definitely get a sit-down with a lawyer and follow their advice. They will be able to tell you whether you really need to hire an attorney, or if you're fine on your own, and what steps you should take if you are contacted by police or counsel about the stuff. For now, don't touch the stuff, don't talk about the stuff, don't admit to or speculate about anything relating to the stuff--don't even make a visual survey of the stuff--until you've consulted with a lawyer.

The reason you are smart to be cautious is that you have no idea what the police might do, what the relative or anyone else might be telling the police, or what anyone's counsel might be considering, and even the most innocent seeming statement or action on your part could create headaches for you.

Don't discuss the facts of the case-- even the most mundane-seeming details--with anyone except the lawyer, even your family members who need emotional support. At least avoid making any statements about what you know or think about the alleged crime, especially any items that may or may not be related to it.
posted by kapers at 2:42 PM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

I initially agreed with Jessamyn. There may be nothing relevant to the prosecution in that stuff, or the prosecution may not get to find out about that stuff or where it is (unlikely, if it is important they will ask the victim if he/she hasn't already volunteered its location).

However you think that it's entirely possible the police may take an interest in these belongings as part of their investigation - I think that is basis enough for getting some legal advice, to clarify how to respond if approached, or whether to be pre-emptive and volunteer access to the stuff in your possession. Another element would be dealing with a request for access by someone representing the accused.
posted by GeeEmm at 2:48 PM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

I should have put in my original comment - my husband is a criminal defense attorney and this would be far from the strangest call he received in any given day. He's helped people in similar situations in the past, and a lawyer who you have sat down with before is a lot more likely to drop their weekend plans to help you if they already know you.
posted by notjustthefish at 2:50 PM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Definitely contact a criminal defense, pay for an hour of their time, take their advice. If for no other reason than your peace of mind. And you'll have a lawyer to contact if you need one.

If this involves anything federal, you might want to read Popehat's advice when talking with any federal representative.
posted by Marky at 2:54 PM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you want to be prepared to get legal advice if something comes up, then you need to do the legwork in advance to know who you will want to call. (I don't know about you, but I don't happen to have any criminal defense lawyers in the my rolodex.) Once you know who you think you would want to call, I would probably contact the office and find out if they are in fact a good match and how you would retain them if you wanted their services. You can see if they will do a free initial meeting with you to talk about when and how you might want to use their services. If it isn't free, you can find out the cost and weigh it against the peace of mind of knowing what they would say. The goal would be walk away with a clear plan for what to do in any of the many likely contingencies and then you can be much calmer about waiting to see if any of those things happen.

A wordy way of say - do some groundwork now so you can get a lawyer on your side quickly if something happens.
posted by metahawk at 2:55 PM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

As a lawyer--but not your lawyer--, my advice would be ask a criminal defense attorney in your jurisdiction what to do, providing as much detail about the alleged crime and the stuff you packed and stored with the assistance of the victim. Especially since you anticipate being asked about the stuff. The easiest way to extricate yourself quickly from having to have anything to do with the case as it moves forward is to get legal advice in how to dispose of those possessions and, if relevant, get legal advice about making some sort of statement about the stuff and how you ended up with them.

As a person who's been in analogous situations, I have done what jessamyn's suggested. Don't touch the stuff. Don't lie about the stuff. If asked to hand over the stuff, talk to an attorney--although it might be a bit late by then. In my case, the likelihood of anyone knowing the stuff existed at all, much less was at my house, much less was relevant to any crime, was negligible, so there was no risk of a conversation with police prior to my having advice about interacting with the police.

I would add also don't talk to the victim about the crime, the relative or the stuff. Or really, if you can avoid it, don't talk to the victim at all.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:58 PM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Adding: unless, of course, you are an important part of the victim's support network. In that case, the question of how and when to talk to the victim and about what is much more complicated. My "don't talk to the victim" advice is predicated on the assumption that it's not complicated and not harmful for you to just avoid interacting with the victim.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:00 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

IANYL but I am a lawyer with a lot of criminal experience. If this were me, yes, I would indeed be contacting an excellent criminal defense lawyer and letting them decide what to do about notifying the police. I think the chances are decent that the property you stored is relevant to whatever is going on with the felony case, given that both the defendant and alleged victim handled it.

I'd also want if at all possible to relinquish this property. I'd be discussing that desire with my retained lawyer and following whatever advice they give.

If you hear from the police, put them in touch with your lawyer pronto.
posted by bearwife at 3:57 PM on April 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

Retaining a lawyer is an excellent idea, and you can always shop around until you find one willing to spend just a couple of hours to help you out (instead of one who wants a 5 or 10 grand retainer.) I am a public defender (but not your attorney) and a similar question to yours was posted on a newsgroup I'm a part of. The consensus on how to best deal with sensitive, potentially illegal items (illegal drugs, child porn, etc) was a complicated two-attorney system to maintain confidentiality so that law enforcement never knew it came from you. And even that was fraught with peril, and there was a fair amount of disagreement. So yeah, this is a very complicated issue and you're best served getting an attorney. If you don't get an attorney and just turn stuff over to law enforcement, well, you could be fine, if you are lucky enough to encounter an ethical cop who believes you and doesn't think you did anything wrong. But there are myriad ways this could go wrong, hence, the attorney suggestions.
posted by Happydaz at 8:44 PM on April 13, 2016

I am a criminal defense attorney. I am not your criminal defense attorney, and this is not legal advice. If I were in your situation, I would retain a criminal defense attorney licensed in my jurisdiction, and do nothing else--including communicating about this situation with anyone other than the lawyer, and not doing anything with the items--unless and until my lawyer advised me to.

These kinds of situations are unpredictable and very high risk. This could be a situation in which everything will be fine no matter what you do, if you have committed no crime and no one ever suspects you of a crime. It could also be a very serious, dangerous situation that implicates your liberty now and in the future. No one here can tell you which it is, and only a lawyer you retain to advise you can help you figure out the best way to try to avoid the latter.
posted by decathecting at 9:38 PM on April 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Please hire representation. I know from personal experience that being adjacent to an alleged criminal can be very, very tricky. I thought I was having a "friendly" interview with some nice young LEOs when suddenly I was being pressured and even implicated. "I'd like to call an attorney." "This is just an informal interview. If you call an attorney we'll have to take you in. In front of all of your colleagues. You have nothing to hide, right?" Yeah. Don't be an idiot like I was. The police are your friends right up until the moment they aren't.
posted by xyzzy at 10:32 PM on April 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Anytime the police take (or might take) an interest in your life, hire a lawyer. Also, print copies of despriptions of your rights when dealing with police for everyone in your household, including babysitters, dog walkers, etc - post copies by all the doors . Be polite, of course, but there is no need to engage in friendly chit chat.

(I truly wish I didn't have reason to recommend using extreme caution when dealing with police.)

I hope this all passes quickly and painlessly for you and yours.
posted by she's not there at 1:58 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

You've already gotten advice advice to talk to a lawyer. I'd not only do that ASAP, but i'd ask the lawyer if i had to talk to the cops at all, or if i could just say "Oh heh, sorry, my lawyer advised me not to".

I ran in to a similar situation with a very close friend i was living with, and they ended up trying to use every bit of information we had given them against him. I mean everyone tells you that, but it's fucking true. Even totally innocuous seeming stuff turned in to a game of "oh yea, well so and so said THIS" later on. It was an exchange very similar to what was described above where the formerly chill seeming cops turned.

Unless you are specifically looking to fuck this person over, ask a lawyer if you can clam up safely here. The answer is yes more often than no.
posted by emptythought at 2:21 PM on April 14, 2016

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